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The major difference between skin-care categories is potency and strength of ingredients.

YakobchukOlena/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

Navigating the world of skin care can be overwhelming. One quick stroll down the beauty aisles of any drugstore or department store will yield hundreds of sophisticated-sounding products promising healthier, better-looking skin.

The majority of skin-care products out there fall into the cosmetic-grade category, but if you’re shopping for brands such as VivierSkin, AlumierMD, SkinCeuticals and Obagi Medical, you’d come out empty-handed hunting for them at a local Sephora or Shoppers Drug Mart. Unlike over-the-counter choices, these skin-care players, which fall into the professional-strength, pharmaceutical-grade bucket, are primarily sold at dermatology offices and medical spas with a physician on staff, or through authorized sites including SkinStore and Beauty Sense. The major difference between skin-care categories is potency and strength of ingredients. Because of the higher concentration of big-ticket ingredients, medical-grade companies are known for investing more in robust testing and clinical studies rather than advertising, which is why many of these brands are generally not as well known.

“It’s not hard to get a product approved. There are numerous skin-care brands available with very little scientific data and information about what they are and how well they work,” dermatologist Dr. Nowell Solish says. With pharmaceutical-grade products, which are treated as drugs, he says, “they’ve done studies looking at their product, they follow strict regulations and they have scientists to make sure.” The Toronto-based physician often receives products to test. “They’re on such a different level than some of the stuff you can pick up [at mass stores], and which can make even greater claims, so you have to be careful.”

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Don’t get us wrong, you can find plenty of good skin-care products lining the aisles of major retailers, especially your basics such as cleansers, traditional moisturizers and sunscreens. But if it’s some serious skin changes you’re after, know that products made for the general population contain a lower percentage and a different quality of active ingredients.

“The quality in medical grade is much purer, and because of that, it’s much more expensive to manufacture,” Solish says. Also, the amounts of active ingredients in mainstream bottles and tubes are regulated by Health Canada for consumer safety. “This is because heavily commercialized companies are not really capable of counselling [consumers] properly, or prepared to handle the possible adverse outcomes that might occur when you use a product that has more potent ingredients,” Newfoundland-based dermatologist Dr. Ian Landells says. “Pharmaceutical-grade ingredients are designed to stir things up in your skin, so some hand-holding by your medical aesthetician needs to be done.”

Along with heavy-hitting ingredients and research, medical-grade companies typically invest in advanced delivery systems, enabling formulas to effectively penetrate into the deeper layers of skin where new skin cells are produced. “Just because a product lists an ingredient such as retinol on its label, does not mean it is in an adequate concentration, or is actually being delivered to the target cells in your [skin],” Landells says. “This unfortunately is the case with many mainstream beauty brands."

A stable delivery system is essential when it comes to a skin-care product’s shelf-life stability, says Solish, especially products packed with finicky ingredients such as vitamin C. Many formulas on the market spiked with the collagen-stimulating, skin-brightening antioxidant can degrade quickly inside their packaging when exposed to light and air, turning brown. “People will say, ‘Well, I found a vitamin C cream for $9.’ But the truth is that vitamin C may not be kept in the right standards and may already be oxidized and not working,” Solish says. Unfortunately for our wallets, this all adds up to steeper price tags for dermatologist-exclusive brands.

So, is there an ideal skin type for medical-grade regimens? Anyone who wants to be proactive with their skin-care routine can incorporate professional-strength formulas, Landells says; the category is highly praised for slowing down signs of aging and treating lines and wrinkles. However, the product combinations out there are more so formulated to correct specific problems. “They are especially warranted for acne-prone skin, sun-damaged skin, as well as individuals who struggle with melasma or hyperpigmentation,” Landells says.

The bottom line: When building a results-driven skin-care regimen, understanding what’s inside your products is what really counts. “Ingredients such as vitamin C, benzoyl peroxide, retinol, salicylic acid, peptides, growth factors and hyaluronic acid can do their job better when they are in a more pure, highly stabilized form, and have an enhanced delivery system,” Landells says. “Otherwise, your skin care is more like a Band-Aid and not as effective as it should be.”

Professional help

If you’re pharmaceutical-grade product curious, it might be worth talking to your derm about these expert-approved options.

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Serum secret

Both dermatologists agree: Serums are a go-to for delivering the most concentrated blast of active ingredients to the skin and their lighter texture is great for layering. Packed with collagen-building growth factors and peptides (two naturally occurring substances in our bodies), this all-in-one rejuvenating treatment minimizes lines and wrinkles while improving tone and texture.


SkinMedica TNS Essential Serum, $300,

Spot treatment

A common skin issue in the colder months is hyperpigmentation leftover from summer, such as brown spots, Dr. Nowell Solish says. If patients aren’t up for laser treatments, the dermatologist recommends a good brightening cream. Made with pigment-reducing arbutin and exfoliating lactic acid and resorcinol, this oil-free moisturizer can be used on the face, neck, décolletage and even the back of the hands.

Vivier Skin Brightening Cream, $110,

Master mix

Containing 15-per-cent high-strength vitamin C powder, this unique complexion-strengthening serum is sold in three bottles and is a “home run” Solish says. “It has great stability. You mix it yourself every month, so it [stays] fresh, plus it has matrixyl to stimulate collagen.”

AlumierMD EverActive C&E, $179,

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Cold comfort

In colder months, skin often needs more attention in the hydration department. “Besides switching to a heavier moisturizer, I sometimes suggest clients add a serum with hyaluronic acid,” Dr. Ian Landells says. The beauty wonderkind hydrates thirsty skin like nothing else. This serum combines the superstar ingredient with botanical extracts of licorice root and purple rice to further protect skin from dehydration.


SkinCeuticals H.A. Intensifier, $125,

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